Dog-bite Britain: the problem with the pandemic puppy explosion

Annie Forman’s cockapoo was not a pandemic puppy, but she became one: a furry lifebuoy to cling to during the first lockdown. Forman, 28, a receptionist at a GP surgery in a small Devon town, had grown up with dogs. They had never let her down, which she couldn’t say for some of the humans in her life.So when in January last year, Forman moved from her parents’ dog-filled home to her own place, the first thing she did was get a puppy. “There was no way I was going to go anywhere in life without a dog,” Forman says on the phone. As she speaks, Nellie the cockapoo is curled up on her lap. “I’ve struggled with my mental health for many years, and dogs were what got me through it. That’s why it was a bit crap what happened – because everything that had made me feel better sort of got taken away.” Forman had seen the rottweiler before. It spent its days penned in a front garden, looking forlorn.In late October, Forman had dropped Nellie at her parents’ house after a morning walk, and was heading home to get ready for work. “I saw the owner first, standing on the edge of the pavement with the dog,” she recalls. She squeezed between the pair and some railings when the dog began to bark.

“And then it just leapt up at me,” she says. “It was aiming for my face, but I put my arm up, and it took a massive chunk of it clean off. I couldn’t feel anything at first because it had taken all the nerve endings.”

Annie FormanFurry friend … Annie Forman, who was bitten by a rottweiler, and her calmer companion, Nellie. Photograph: Annie Forman
Forman had joined the unfortunate ranks of Britain’s dog-bite survivors. They are a growing breed. While statistics do not yet paint a complete picture, what we know is troubling: hospitals, personal injury lawyers, dog walkers and trainers all report that soaring demand for canine companions in the past year is coming back to bite us.
Some cases grab the headlines, and cannot simply be blamed on the pandemic. Earlier this month Lucille Downer, a grandmother in her 80s, died after being attacked in her West Midlands garden by dogs that had escaped from a neighbouring property. The animals were euthanised. In March in London, a QC said she was “heartbroken” after her dog attacked “Freddie Mercury” , a seal that had made a home in the Thames. Freddie had to be put down. Meanwhile, in the US, after Joe Biden’s rescue dog, Major, nipped two staffers, a White House spokesperson said the german shepherd was “still adjusting to his new surroundings”.

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But it is an everyday pattern of nips in the park and attacks in the home, including on children, that is raising wider concern. The Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association estimates there are now 12 million dogs in the UK, up about 2 million in 12 months. French bulldogs and labradors have been the most popular new dogs, according to analysis of pet insurance quotes by GoCompare.As pandemic puppies grow into dogs with sharp teeth, too many lack the training to walk safely into the post-lockdown world. Meanwhile, dogs that do remember a life before Covid are on edge after a topsy-turvy year and face more upheaval as lockdown restrictions are eased. “Puppies haven’t been getting the same mental stimulation they would have done,” says Dr Jenna Kiddie, the head of canine behaviour at the Dogs Trust. “They haven’t been exposed to visitors to the home in the same way or been around other dogs. So we’re very worried about how they’re going to respond. Because they will probably respond with fear, and one way a dog can cope with fear is to use aggression.”When Forman went to hospital in Exeter for emergency surgery on her arm, she was recorded as a “W54”. The “exposure to animate mechanical forces” section of the World Health Organization’s classification system for health problems includes the codes W58 (“bitten by a crocodile”) and W60 (“contact with plant thorns”). W54 is “bitten or struck by a dog”.More than 200 miles north of Exeter, in Liverpool, doctors at Alder Hey children’s hospital had begun to notice a rise in W54s soon after the first lockdown started last March. Social isolation was good for children’s physical health, if not always their mental wellbeing; there were fewer acute infections and accidents, for example. “But there was what felt like a lot of dog bites,” says Simon Minford, an advanced nurse practitioner specialising in cosmetic surgery for trauma patients at Alder Hey. “I remember one day seeing three or four cases, which was unusual. That’s what started alarm bells ringing.”
Alder Hey was already part of the Merseyside Dog Safety Partnership, which includes academics, charities and councils. When Minford and his colleagues shared their concerns at a meeting of the group, John Tulloch’s ears pricked up. Tulloch, a vet and epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool, has been fascinated by injuries to humans caused by animals, partly since breaking a rib while calving a cow (a W64, by the way).Tulloch has led a push to record and better analyse dog-bite data. In January, he published a study that used the W54 code to examine hospital admissions in England from 1998 to 2018. In 20 years, admissions for dog bites almost tripled, from six to 15 per 100,000 people, which equalled 8,000 admissions in 2018. Children aged under 14 made up a quarter of that number, which does not include bites patched up by GPs or in the home. The rise easily outpaced growth in the dog population.

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After the meeting, Tulloch began crunching the numbers at Alder Hey. His latest study, published last week, revealed a threefold increase in dog-bite attendances after the start of the first lockdown, peaking last July when doctors there dealt with 44 attacks – about 12 a week. While W54s include dog “strikes” – people being knocked over – Tulloch says records show the vast majority of cases are bites. “Often these are children who maybe have had only a graze on the knee before,” says Minford, who has two cocker spaniels and two sons. “And suddenly they’re in hospital with a bite to the face. Every interaction is heartbreaking.” The jump at Alder Hey echoes evidence recorded elsewhere. West Midlands police dealt with 800 dog-attack incidents in 2020, a three-year high. Tulloch wants to do more research, partly to capture how many bites happen without leading to hospital admissions. He also wants to better understand why dogs attack and why they are doing so more now. “One of the key research questions we have is: ‘What is happening just before a bite occurs?’” he says.

With kids stuck at home, there has been more exposure – and a greater leaning on dogs for play or emotional support. Small children are more vulnerable, clumsy and fearless. But dogs, more than ever, are also now treated as family members. Boundaries have become blurred; guards have dropped.

Carri WestgarthDr Carri Westgarth, who was bitten as a toddler, and her dog Roxie. Photograph: Carri Westgarth
Carri Westgarth was about two when her mum ran upstairs to fetch a nappy, leaving her alone with the family’s two placid jack russells. By the time she came back down, one of the dogs had bitten Carri on the head. She still has the scars. She thinks she may have crawled over to the animal, which was going blind, and confused it enough to trigger an attack.Now 39, Westgarth was not put off dogs. Like everyone I spoke to for this article, she is a dog-lover. A former canine-behaviour counsellor, she is now a senior lecturer in human-animal interaction at the University of Liverpool, and co-author of Tulloch’s studies.
Westgarth, whose book The Happy Dog Owner is out this month, says that even dog trainers often share the commonly held view that some attacks are inevitable and associated with certain breeds – and certain types of owners. Yet fatal attacks remain extremely rare; there were fewer than three a year, on average, from 1981 to 2015. While attacks by “dangerous” breeds such as pit bulls make front pages, Tulloch says there is no good data on breeds and bites.

Any breed can bite, Westgarth adds. She believes stereotypes stymie research and prevention. The pandemic has highlighted the breadth of the problem, in and out of the home, where too many pandemic puppies have missed out on socialisation. “You see them coming down the street,” she says. “They avoid you or look nervous, and a lot of my colleagues are doing a lot of work with very nervous adolescent dogs bought by well-meaning people who just didn’t realise how important those early months are.”

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Hannah Molloy, a dog-behaviour expert based in the West Midlands, says puppies need to be socialised to get used to the human world from eight to 16 weeks. “Too many people don’t do it or think they can do it alone,” she says. “We want everything tomorrow, and then we’re shocked when dogs go from calm to biting. But they’ve never had the opportunity to learn alternative behaviours.”Molloy says owners can spot warning signs before a dog becomes anxious or threatened enough to bite. “The earliest sign is it licking its nose and turning its head away,” she says. Clutching a paw to the chest can be another sign. Some scared dogs roll on to their backs; a tummy tickle is the worst possible way to respond. Instead, Molloy recommends giving an anxious dog space.

Setting boundaries is important, but severe or sustained punishments can repress emotion, displacing problems. “If you constantly shout at a dog not to growl at a child, all that happens is that when that adult punisher isn’t around, the dog is more likely to bite, in my experience, because they associate that child with bad things happening,” Molloy says.

Jenna Kiddie, at the Dogs Trust, says there are ways of getting dogs used to visitors to the house again. Owners can teach a dog to associate a door-knock or bell-ring with a treat in its bed, so that it automatically heads for bed rather than the door. “The doorbell going is also a situation where it’s so easy to take your eyes off the children,” she warns.
puppyPuppies can be trained to be comfortable with visitors by being given a treat when the doorbell rings. Photograph: Capuski/Getty Images
Above all, Westgarth says, do not be complacent. She warns any owner never to leave children and dogs together unsupervised. Stair or door gates should also separate them overnight and during meal times. Even old, docile dogs can respond badly to undiagnosed joint pain or sight loss. “People think there are dangerous dogs with irresponsible owners going round doing all the biting,” she says. “But it’s not like that. The phrase you hear time and time again is: ‘He’s never done anything like this before.’”
The emotional and financial effects of a bite can take longer to heal than the wounds. Jenna Foxton, a freelance photographer, was walking her rescue pomeranian-pug hybrid, Disco, near her home in Cornwall last December when a passing greyhound on a lead went for its throat. When she tried to prise apart the greyhound’s jaws, one of its teeth tore through one of the tendons in her finger. A surgeon had to reattach it.
Jenna FoxtonJenna Foxton in hospital after being bitten. Photograph: Jenna Foxton
Foxton, 36, was stuck in casts for seven weeks, in pain and unable to work. Friends persuaded her to seek compensation. She found James McNally, AKA “the dog bite solicitor”, who is based at Slee Blackwell, a firm in Taunton. His inbox went crazy when the pandemic took hold; inquiries leapt from about two a week to five a day.

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More than half of McNally’s clients are self-employed delivery drivers, who are bringing more stuff to more homes with more dogs. “But because everyone was out walking their dogs and jogging in the same parks at the same time, we were also getting a lot of attacks and injuries like that,” he says. McNally only pursues insured dog owners via their insurance companies, although owners themselves are also liable to be sued or prosecuted for failing to control a dog, depending on the severity of the attack. Penalties can rise to 14 years in prison. Compensation varies; an Amazon delivery driver McNally acted for last year received £3,000 after being bitten on the leg. McNally predicts a further rise in cases as pandemic dogs adjust to eased restrictions. He says victims should always exchange details with owners, call the police and get medical attention (any break in the skin can lead to infection). Delivery workers should also take photos of the house at the time of the attack. “It’s not unheard of for ‘beware of the dog’ signs to appear afterwards,” he says.Foxton, who is still fearful while walking Disco, is waiting to hear if she will get compensation. She may require more surgery to improve movement in the finger. “I can still hold a pint at least,” she says. Disco recovered much more quickly; vets think her fleshy folds saved her life. “Dogs are just cute, cuddly things on Instagram for some people who maybe haven’t grown up with them,” Foxton says. “But people forget that they are animals.”

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Forman knew this, just as she knew that dogs also helped keep her afloat, not least when the pandemic left her isolated. “She became everything,” she says of Nellie. The attack left Forman in a spin. She had nightmares and felt a return of the stress disorder she had experienced after a traumatic episode in her teens.Forman’s scar now looks remarkably neat compared with the gory picture she sent me of her arm after the attack. But going for a walk, with or without Nellie, can still make her anxious. “I still love dogs – they’re everything – and I think that’s why all this has upset me so much,” she says.